New Zealand permanently legalized drug checking on November 23, by passing a bill to let a pilot program performing the harm reduction service at festivals continue and expand its operations. The new law will take effect December 6.
New Zealand is the first country to explicitly legalize, and subsequently facilitate, drug checking, which utilizes special equipment to let people know what’s in the substances they plan to consume. The pilot program, first approved in December 2020, was set to expire in December 2021.
In April, the Ministry of Health had recommended making the pilot permanent, which led to plans for the new legislation. Data showed that 68 percent of participants changed their behavior as a result of accessing the service, and 87 percent said they better understood the harms of drug use after talking with the people performing it.
“There’s plenty of work still to do,” Wendy Allison, director of KnowYourStuffNZ, a volunteer drug-checking organization appointed by the Ministry of Health to run the pilot, said in a statement. “But this feels like quite an achievement. We have been working towards this for seven years and so many people have worked so hard to get us to this point. Today we’re celebrating our success.”
Prior to the pilot, NZ drug checkers had done much the same work, but without legal protections. Many businesses were scared away from working with them, which limited their services.
The New Zealand bill installs broad legal protections for people offering the service and for people accessing it.
In many countries, including the United States, drug checking inhabits a legal gray area. This means volunteers who perform the work do so at risk of being criminally prosecuted. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have services that are government-sanctioned.
But the New Zealand bill installs broad legal protections for people offering the service and for people accessing it. It does not legalize possession, buying or selling of drugs. Lawmakers essentially approved the bill as originally written, while repealing the provisions that made it only temporary.
If a music festival or other place of business chooses, it can host drug checking on-site. A service provider will offer “information and harm reduction advice to help individuals make informed decisions about drug and psychoactive substance use.” The Ministry of Health will publish a full list of available providers.
For the types of drugs often associated with festivals, like MDMA, drug checking typically involves testing samples with chemical reagent kits, which are relatively accessible and inexpensive. But KnowYourStuffNZ is able to perform its services using its three portable, solar-powered Fourier transform infrared spectrometers—which offer much more comprehensive analysis—and just use reagent kits as an additional measure in cases where such kits might be able to provide extra information, like when checking LSD.
Upon receiving their results, drug users decide for themselves whether they wish to keep or dispose of their sample (or, in certain settings where it’s an option, submit it for further lab testing). Drug checkers are forbidden from collecting any personal information on people who access the services. No one involved can be criminally charged with possession, nor can the results be used in any later criminal proceedings.
Employees and volunteers of these services are protected from liability, “unless it is shown that they acted in bad faith or without reasonable care.” This is to shield them from legal repercussions if someone got a drug tested, used it and experienced harms or death. Since drug checking isn’t 100 percent accurate, there’s always a risk. But risks are hugely reduced if people know what’s in their drugs before they decide whether to use.
Photograph via National Institute on Drug Abuse